In the admittedly dubious interest of using national stereotypes as a way of understanding human nature, let's posit that while Americans have always emerged from the womb cheerfully, pleased with their right to pursue happiness, Russians were born to suffer. That may help explain why Fedor Bondarchuk's 3D spectacle Stalingrad couldn't have been made in today's Hollywood, or perhaps the Hollywood of any time. Despite its wholly modern special effects, the movie is old-fashioned and compelling in a way that almost defies description. Lush with feeling that could easily be mistaken for sentimentality, Stalingrad is more like a 19th-century novel than a 21st-century blockbuster. It's theatrical and intense, sometimes in an overbearing way, but it's never boring. Human fortitude is its real subject; history is merely its reason for existing.
Partly a war movie in the traditional sense, Stalingrad roughs out the story of the Russian army's desperate, ultimately successful, struggle to wrest that city from the Germans in the fall of 1942. But Bondarchuk and screenwriters Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin, weave a mythical component through the threads of history: Upon their arrival in the ravaged city, a group of five soldiers sets up a command post in a half-destroyed apartment building. There, living among the ruins, they meet 18-year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), who has thus far survived the brutality of German forces and who refuses to leave her home.
Katya is a metaphor for the Russian spirit if ever there was one, a gaunt, magical pixie with haunted eyes—she's almost too much, Natalie Wood crossed with Giulietta Masina, with a dash of Anna Magnani's defiance. But she's so clearly a fantasy figure, a symbol of the unnameable spiritual something these desperate soldiers are fighting for, that her presence feels completely natural. And one by one, the men fall for her, some in a romantic sense, others in a more brotherly, protective way. One teaches her how to use a rifle's sight: Right off the bat, she picks off a German soldier as he draws some water from a pump, and she's made to regret it immediately, as even in war, some decency must prevail. For her birthday, three of the men steal a bathtub for her—this is a world in which a warm bath is a nearly impossible luxury.
You can see why these men need Katya. Bondarchuk—the son of Sergey Bondarchuk, who directed the mid-'60s Russian War and Peace, which won an Oscar in 1969 for Best Foreign Language Film—presents a thoroughly detailed siege landscape, a great city in danger of being smashed by German aggression. The backdrops, especially as seen in IMAX 3D, are majestic to the point of being overwhelming: Stately buildings, their façades cracked or half-destroyed, smolder gloomily in the background. The battle of Stalingrad was the most harrowing of World War II, and Bondarchuk doesn't skimp on the horrors: The Germans, prepared for the Russians' assault from the banks of the Volga, set their fuel reserves on fire and pour the flaming liquid downhill. The Russian soldiers, aflame and screaming, charge forward anyway, the image both haunting and alarming.
Stalingrad's battle sequences—and there are many of them—are generally artful: When a bullet hits its mark, the result is a slo-mo blood spurt à la Sam Peckinpah. But Bondarchuk may be a little too good at turning real-life historical horror into action-movie spectacle. Sometimes Stalingrad, despite its obviously serious intentions, looks too much like a generic Hollywood action picture; it doesn't mute history's violence, and yet there's something distastefully artificial and distancing about the way that violence is presented. There are some good reasons it was the top-grossing Russian film of 2013.
Stalingrad is far more successful in addressing the cost of war to individuals, the way it either cracks them to pieces or draws out reserves of valor and integrity they didn't know they had—or both. Bondarchuk has populated his scenes with great Russian faces, actors whose names we may not know but who nevertheless fill the screen as though movie stars: Andrey Smolyakov, as an older soldier who feels a paternal protectiveness toward Katya, has a tough-guy visage that's both dour-looking and resolutely cheerful; he's the spirit of optimism behind a face that rarely smiles. The movie does feature one bona-fide international movie star, Thomas Kretschmann, who, as with so many German actors of his generation, has played his share of Nazi soldiers. (He even played one in another Stalingrad, made by Joseph Vilsmaier in 1993.) But he has depth and sensitivity, and he brings both to bear here as a German officer who forcefully takes a beautiful Russian woman (Yanina Studilina) as his mistress, only to reveal he actually feels a complicated tenderness toward her. On the most basic level, Stalingrad is a simple war picture, straightforward in its brutality. But there's another movie nestled inside, a more complex, somber one. And that one needs no special 3D effects.